I remember the only ultimatum my wife ever gave me. I was in my 30s, trying to build a legal practice. We had just had our second child and living in what was now a very cramped, rented duplex in a townhouse complex. Our situation was not improved when our son started piddling on the ground floor neighbours from off our balcony. It was a weekend lunchtime and I was swinging my driver in our small lounge preparatory to heading off for a game of golf.
I was useless. I could not afford the time to practice, only played irregularly and then badly. Worse still, I hated losing. Thinking too much about the game ahead, I swung hard at an imaginary ball and, on my follow through, destroyed the overhead light fittings. There was glass everywhere, which was when my little wife put her foot down and announced quite forcefully, “You can choose two of the following three: golf, hunting and me!”
She says now that she added, “And it better be hunting and me” but I have no recollection of this latter statement. At any rate, it gave me food for thought and I chose her and hunting and what a good choice that was.
Many years later, after I had been lucky enough to retire quite early from corporate life and pursue other interests, a wealthy friend of a similar age who held a very senior position in a bank, called to find out how things were going. I had to admit that the first few weeks had been quite unsettling. I no longer had a secretary and driver at my beck and call and a number of things I had taken for granted I now had to do for myself and, mostly, had very little idea of how to go about them. All I knew about computers, for example, was how to turn them on and off. Worse still, my wife explained to me that she had married me for better or worse but not for lunch!
I soon adapted however, employed an assistant to work from our home, re-organised the priorities in my life and was soon thriving in my new found freedom. My friend sounded envious but ended the conversation by saying, “That’s all very well for you, you have hunting but I can’t play golf six days a week”.
It made me realise how hunting had given me a passion – hobby is not a word that describes hunting properly – which had enriched my life, meant that I did not define myself in terms of my job and gave me a reason to stay fit and get out of bed each morning. Furthermore, along with hunting had come its inseparable companion, conservation and, as a byproduct of the two, writing as well. Not only that, but it was something I could share with my entire family and I have a big one.
One little boy, the son of a cousin, was so intrigued by the mounted animals on my study walls and the stories that went with them, asked me to teach him to hunt. He was way too young but I promised that, on his ninth birthday, if he still wanted to, I would teach him. Promptly on the day of his ninth birthday, my phone rang and he posed the question again. One thing led to another and I ended up teaching not only him but his two sisters and mother as well and discovered what wonderful hunters and shottists women make.
By then I was teaching a handful of young boys to hunt each year purely because they were the ones whose parents approached me. The differences between the boys and girls were stark however. For example, if a boy started to shoot better than the others on the week long course, he immediately was elevated in stature by the others and, conversely, the boy who was consistently worst, often came in for ridicule.
The girl who shot best, however, immediately pooh-poohed her efforts and ascribed them to luck, while the girls rallied around the one shooting badly, tried to boost her confidence and give her tips on how to improve.
On the evening of the fourth day of the course, we gave all the kids a quiz – we didn’t want to label it as a test – to help assess how much they had learned, to decide if they were able to hunt the next day and, if so, where. The more competent the kid, the more challenging the hunt we could take him/her on. And so, for example, I would take the less able kids into the mountains where I was reasonably sure of being able to bring them within 40 to 50 metres of a mountain reedbuck.
The best quiz score of a boy was 78%. The worst quiz score of a girl was 74%. Enough said. Girls were like sponges and didn’t believe it was their God given right to be able to shoot well from the get go and without practice purely because of their sex. Over the years I taught them, only one girl, a grown woman actually, failed to kill her animal with one shot.
The more control I had over my discretionary time, of course, the more I could devote to hunting. I used some of this extra time to plan my hunts more carefully – the best hunts, after all, are those where you are able to hunt at the best time of the year, in the best places and with the best people, not so? Conversely, the worst ones are the direct opposite and, in the early days, driven by finances, costs were the primary factor determining when, where and with whom I hunted, until I realized that, like many other things in life, you got what you paid for.
I also realized that a big part of the attraction of hunting for me was merely being in those huge, unfenced, open areas you can still find in Africa and I did not necessarily have to hunt to enjoy them. Secondly, the cost of observer fees for my wife and kids were much, much less – sometimes my wife could come along for free – which made the whole exercise cheaper than, say, going to a game viewing/photographic safari lodge and, in addition, there was no need to share the camp with people you might not enjoy.
To this day, the thought of having to share a game viewing vehicle with some loud mouthed, obnoxious, know-it-all has been enough to deter me from visiting places like this.
So it was I started hunting further afield and sometimes way outside my comfort zone. I remember my first big hunting step outside Southern Africa was when I travelled to the Central African Republic. Nothing I had read, nor any of the people I had spoken to – and there were not many because I think I was the first South African amateur hunter, other than Nico van Rooyen, the master taxidermist, to go there to hunt – prepared me for Bangui, the capital of this God forsaken, bankrupt, excuse of a country and its ‘International’ airport.
The inside of the windowless building that served this function was one heaving, steamy mass of young black men trying to grab whatever suitcase or parcel coming off the plane was shoved through a hatch – there were no conveyor belts carrying luggage to the passengers or any segregation of passengers from the general public – they could get their hands on and to make off with it. It was where I discovered the blatant corruption that has since become endemic in every one of the 20 or so African countries I have visited and which has only become worse and worse over the years, contributing in no small measure, amongst many other adverse factors, to the steep drop in numbers of visiting hunters.
Immigration and customs were a nightmare and, without a well-versed, experienced, meet and greet person, who knew the ropes, the officials, who to pay and how much, your life could, and frequently was, made a misery. “Your firearm licence says that the number on your firearm is 8444 (or 3555 for that matter). But the actual number on your rifle is 3444 or 8555,” which, of course, was rubbish but gave the official the excuse to demand a bribe to change the form/overlook the ‘error’.
I remember watching while the meet and greet person employed by the safari outfitter blessedly took care of my paperwork as an older American man approached the immigration official who simply took his passport, put it in the drawer beneath the counter and ask the gob smacked American where his passport was. “You have just put it in your drawer,” he spluttered. “No, I haven’t,” the official denied. Cut a long story short, after much shouting, arm waving and the arrival of a senior policeman, who looked in the drawer and confirmed the official’s story, someone gave the American a $20 note, which he should have included in his passport in the first place and peace was restored. But I bet he will never go to CAR again and has told every person, including the US State Department, about what happened.
Bangui holds a number of bad memories for me. On the return from my second trip – a very successful hunt for Lord Derby’s eland, buffalo and a variety of plains game not available in Southern Africa – the army had rebelled as it had not been paid for some nine months. There was a black hole where my bedroom had been in the hotel I had stayed in on my arrival – someone had fired a mortar round into it – and there were dead bodies lying in the streets. Worse still, the only weekly international flight to the country – Air France – had been cancelled and I was lucky enough to be allowed to stay in a house with the girlfriends of two PHs until the flights resumed some ten days later.
It was at moments like these I used to ask myself what a little, lily-white, city boy from Johannesburg was doing so far from home, on his own, in a foreign country where he understood little of the local language and spoke even less of it. And yet, no matter how dreadful the experience in dealing with yet another grossly corrupt official, police and/or army personnel, something dragged me back to these toilets and no prize for guessing what that was. Hunting.
And it was not only in the towns that I experienced these moments questioning my sanity, planning and preparation. I remember, for example, the first time I was confronted by a huge, lowland, silver back gorilla. I was hunting in the rainforests of Cameroon, surely one of, if not the, most corrupt country in Africa after the Republic of Congo, sometimes referred to as Congo Brazzaville to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of Congo – and what a joke that name is – across the river or Congo Kinshasa as it is known.
I was being guided by Geoffroy de Gentile, a French military trained, expert, rain forest elephant guide and accompanied by his team of six equally expert Pygmy trackers. The rain forest, where we were following the tracks of a small herd of dwarf forest buffalo, was thicker than usual, which meant that visibility was down to about 20 paces. Out of nowhere, a cacophony of sound erupted from close by accompanied by roaring, crashing of brush and tearing of vegetation, coming ever closer at the speed of a runaway express train!
In those nano seconds, part of me wanted to run, part of me knew my only salvation lay in confronting whatever was causing the wave of sound enveloping me and a final part was aware of a small hand bunching up the shirt in the hollow of my back.
The screen of green five metres to my front bulged, shook and my finger was tightening on the 2 ½ pound Timney trigger of my Brno .416 when, as suddenly as it had started, so it stopped. Dead silence reigned. Not a bird or insect could I hear. No sound other than the blood gushing in my ears. Then a little voice behind me said one word, “Bobo”. Gorilla!
We backed slowly away from the screen of bushes and the Pygmies said they could hear the gorilla retreating. And then one of them, who had scooted up a sheer tree trunk, slithered down and the others all started talking at once, And then one of them, Mombatou I think it was, started laughing and we all joined in as they told and retold what had happened and how the different individuals had reacted.
And then there was the time with the dwarf forest buffalo that nearly cleaned up three of us and the time four rebels shot at Alain and I from an impossibly close range with AK 47s and somehow missed…I can go on and on but for another time maybe.
But most times hunting in these sparsely inhabited, vast areas was like being in the army…get on the truck, get off the truck, hurry up and wait, lengthy periods of doing nothing other than prepare for when that time arrived. For some, it might have seemed boring but then I do not recall ever having been bored in my life. For me, those periods of silence on a long track, typically after elephant or eland, were like a pilgrimage. Quiet times of peaceful and, sometimes, intense introspection and reflection. Time to allow my subconscious to do its work, to sort through troubling issues, to gain perspective. Time to appreciate the perfection of the natural world around me and to gain some perspective of the grain of sand in the Sahara which I represented.
I suspect that, for each of us, hunting means different things at different times given different circumstances. Looking back on my hunting life, this has certainly been my experience and I would not have missed any of the six stages a hunter goes through if he pursues his passion persistently over time.
And do I miss it? I stopped hunting three years ago in my 70th year and, it is true that, every now and then I read a well written hunting article and think, “It might be nice to try that”, until I remember more precisely what a 70 year old body can and cannot do and why I stopped when I did.